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It was in the 1930’s when Hugh Nibley, a doctoral candidate in the classics, proposed writing his dissertation on the perennial phenomena of the mob in the ancient world. The topic was rejected. Too unreal, too irrelevant to the mood and spirit of the modern world the committee said. Nibley, later a renowned scholar, had to choose a different topic. The institution that rejected a study of the mob as irrelevant to modern society was the University of California at Berkley.
As Berkley found to its sorrow, the mob is very relevant to our society. Not only have we had riots in many inner cities, but less publicized mobs often affect public decision-making. It’s worth examining the mob mind-set not only for that reason but to see how it affects some of our own even non-violent actions. I’m not a psychologist but I have read a bit about the subject and I conclude that there are two components of that mind-set:
First, the anonymity of the mob, what psychologists call deindividuation (essentially losing ones individuality). Participants don’t think of themselves as individually responsible for the mob actions. Removing that personal responsibility allows them to do things they would never do if they thought they would be recognized and called to account as individuals.
Second, diffusion of responsibility. Mob members can easily think that they had no part in the decision to act, so they are not responsible for their actions. Everybody just follows the crowd with no conscious decision-making on the part of most mob members. This is groupthink writ large.
The result may be a lynching, beating up someone of different ethnicity, stealing merchandise from a store during a riot, or other anti-social action. It may just be the crowd getting out of hand at a rock concert. In the minds of mob participants none of it is their fault; they are just going along. The fact is that people will do things as part of such a group that they would never do as individuals.
Those moral gyrations may sooth consciences, but the participants are still responsible for their actions. The person who steals a TV during a riot is just as guilty of thievery as the burglar who breaks into the store at night. The Ku Klux Klan member who helps beat up a black person is just as much a thug as the mugger who beats someone without hiding behind a white sheet. The lynch mob member who helps hang a potentially innocent man is a murderer, quite as guilty as the guy who gets mad at his neighbor and shoots him.
“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but how does it apply to me? I’ve never been part of such a mob.”
Are you sure of that? You may have never been part of a violent mob but look again at those two aspects of the mob mind-set. Do they not apply to non-violent group actions as well? I would call anything done with that mind-set a mob action.
Look at business decisions for example. If “the company” decides to mislead customers or cut corners on quality, is that somehow better than if you or I as an individual did the same? Yet it is easy to mask our part by anonymity or by diffusing responsibility, especially in a large corporation. In fact the Spanish term for corporation is “sociedad anónima,” literally anonymous society. The large group allows a mind-set similar to that of a mob; people can think of themselves as not responsible for their actions and unlikely to be held accountable for them. Yet the employee who helps mislead a customer is just as guilty of fraud as is the charlatan who sells snake oil.
Other organizations can have similar problems but there is one that exceeds them all – Government. Government is most prone to this problem and is in a position to create the most damage by its mob action. In addition to deindividuation and diffusion of responsibility, government adds a patina of legitimacy to the mob mind-set. This is combined with a power beyond what any private organization possesses.
Few people are willing to steal from a neighbor to get money for entertainment. However we accept all too readily such things as congressional earmarks for museums of dubious value or a bridge to nowhere. Cities are all too willing to provide tax money for sports teams or artwork, which only a small minority of their citizens will ever enjoy. Local governments even force people to sell their property to private businesses preferred by the politicians. Those actions amount to thievery, regardless of how they are justified. The elected officials who support them are thieves and the voters who demand them are thieves as well. The anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, and patina of legitimacy associated with government do not change that fact.
Fortunately we have progressed beyond the time when people thought slavery was acceptable because government approved it. Now we need to get beyond thinking that government thievery for earmark projects or favored groups is acceptable.
We can hope that people will catch on to this and realize that they are responsible for their actions, either as individuals or as part of a group. However the only way that will happen is for those who already know this to spread the word. As citizens we must avoid demanding government-based thievery for our benefit, and we must oppose it when others make such demands. In our work we must refuse to take part in mob-like actions of deceit and fraud. And of course we must teach this to our children, Lord knows the schools won't teach it.